Protest and prayer in a redwood perch

When Julia Hill, a preacher's daughter from Arkansas, arrived in the woodsy environs of northern California in the summer of 1997, she blended easily and quickly into a loose-knit community of environmental activists.

She volunteered to climb a redwood tree near Stafford, Calif., to save it from the saw - a show of commitment that gave her all the credentials she needed to join a movement that shuns organization and distrusts authority.

After a couple of routine stints in the branches, she climbed the tree for a third sitting during a ferocious December storm. A full year later, Ms. Hill's feet still have not returned to earth. And what started as an admittedly wide-eyed, almost spur-of-the-moment protest, has turned into an odyssey of extraordinary proportions.

For many, it has become a defining act of environmental civil disobedience in the 1990s. Its astonishing duration impresses fan and foe alike. And its impact is heightened because of the contrast it offers to the harder-edged eco-vandalism that apparently led to the torching of a Vail, Colo., ski lodge last month in what may be the costliest act of environmental sabotage in the United States.

Rik Scarce, an environmental historian at Montana State University in Bozeman, sees the tree sit-in and the Vail arson as marking new extremes of a movement wracked by growing tension over tactics: civil disobedience versus destruction of property.

Yet Hill, who has taken the name Julia "Butterfly," has become far more than a poster child for one form of environmental protest. Her year in the tree, she says, has entailed an unexpected inner journey to a personal philosophy that seems to have widened her appeal and turned her into a one-person phenomenon that defies the normal categories of 1990s celebrity.

She has a Web site and a full-time, on-the-ground media coordinator. She communicates by cell phone, her voice increasingly piped into conferences and classrooms. She participated by voice in the recent Spitfire tour, which brought pop entertainers to college campuses to promote activism. Her photograph has graced the pages of the Patagonia outdoor apparel catalog. And a few months ago, Good Housekeeping magazine nominated her as a candidate for "most admired" woman of the year in its "news" category.

Yet to think of Butterfly as just a cottage industry would miss the mark. There is no sign of a calculated move to grab headlines or sell a movie. To the contrary, even Butterfly's critics concede that, however odd living in a tree might strike some, she genuinely wants to save the tree she has named Luna and the nearby Headwaters Forest.

The Headwaters is the largest concentration of ancient redwoods on private land anywhere in the world. Under a deal struck this year, the Pacific Lumber Co., which owns the land, will sell 8,500 acres of forest, half its old-growth, to the federal government and California for $500 million. In exchange, the company gets to log thousands of other acres of redwoods. Many environmentalists are fighting to overturn the deal before money changes hands in March.

For much of this year, trees surrounding Luna were logged, some in ways meant to force Butterfly to the ground. Helicopters, used in the logging operation, hovered overhead, sending their wash over her crude wooden platform wedged 180 feet up in the tree. Now, the company has moved on to other areas of forest, though spokeswoman Mary Bullwinkel says if Butterfly were to depart, Pacific Lumber would likely cut Luna down.

The company minces no words in saying Butterfly is trespassing on private property, though each party speaks surprisingly respectfully of the other.

BUTTERFLY, who does interviews by cell phone, is upbeat and just as likely to talk about "connectedness" and "life balance" as ecology. A support team brings food to the base of the tree every other day, which she hauls up by rope. Tarps provide shelter, and one of her few concessions to comfort is a camping stove that she burns rarely for a hot cup of tea.

She says her time in the tree is the result of daily prayer and will end when she feels she's done all she can. "I've learned a lot about my belief in spirituality" over the past year, says Butterfly. "When you get away from the world of push and pull and all that mass advertising, you tap back into that universe of spirituality."

Much of Butterfly's international celebrity among environmentalists owes to the protest's duration. Environmental historians struggle to find parallels.

But beyond length, the manner of her tree sitting has won over some of the environmental establishment that often keeps its distance from raw activism. "I think what she's done is fabulous," says Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, based in San Francisco. "When people engaged in civil disobedience are able to show a quality of self-restraint and dignity, they're more effective," he adds.

That self-restraint may defuse some antagonism toward her, but it doesn't stop bemusement. Sitting in a tree "is strange to people," says Mr. Scarce of Montana. But, he adds, "she's not crazy or nuts. This is, for her, a profoundly sane statement."

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